The Definition of Religion

The word religion derives from the Latin religio, which roughly means scrupulousness or devotedness. It is used today for a genus of social formations, a taxon which stretches from the so-called world religions to those which are practiced in only one locale or culture. It also includes forms that are not given a name or have never been given a name by those who practice them.

Scholars have developed a variety of definitions, from those which use lexical features to those that use functionalist categories to analyze and classify them. Those who prefer a functional approach to the study of religion use concepts such as power, authority, charisma, and ritual. Others, such as Clifford Geertz, have used a substantive definition and have emphasized the relationship between a religion’s worldview and its ethos.

A third approach has used a combination of the two, using a qualitative assessment to determine whether a particular set of practices is a religion. This type of analysis is based on the assumption that the emergence of a concept for a social kind does not wait until it has been given a name, and that there are properties shared by all members of the class. This taxon has been called polythetic, after the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his notion of “family resemblance.” It allows for a recognition that some elements are more common to different forms that share some characteristics, while other characteristics are unique to each form.

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